Smith brings history alive

For actor, writer and director Roger Smith DRA ’83, mainstream movies that attempt to portray the lives of historical figures often fail to accurately reflect reality.

At a Calhoun College master’s tea on Monday, Smith argued that his roles in “independently-geared and sometimes commercially successful” films have required that he expend significant effort to ensure that he placed his characters in the correct historical context. Smith also shared his views on interracial conflicts and understanding, along with his take on their portrayal in independent media, in front of an audience of about 12 in the Swing Space common room.

While Smith emphasized the importance of accurately representing the past, he said much of his work has attempted to make the past relevant to the present.

“I’m not interested in nostalgia or period pieces, I’m interested in acknowledging the present moment,” said Smith, who has taken on historically-inspired roles such as those of Columbus in “Christopher Columbus 1992” and Frederick Douglass in “Frederick Douglass Now.”

Racial profiling is one issue Smith said he has attempted to tackle throughout his career, including acting in several films — such as the Oscar-nominated “Do the Right Thing” — produced by well-known director Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee in the 1980s.

Smith discussed the extensive preparation he undergoes to get into the skin of his characters, especially for his Obie Award-winning performance as the eponymous character in “A Huey P. Newton Story” in 2001. For that particular work, Smith said he went to Newton’s house, talked to his widow and listened to cassettes that Newton recorded of himself talking.

Smith had originally enrolled in Yale under the inaugural African American studies graduate program, but ended up receiving his master’s at the Yale School of Drama after auditioning for the school on a whim.

“My work is really in combining the interests I first identified here, as a grad student in Yale,” he said.

Smith criticized the media for focusing on the development of fictional characters over historical figures, arguing that history can be made applicable to current situations as well.

History professor Joseph Zgola said he agreed with Smith that modern cinema does not always depict historical realities.

“[Certain forms of media] don’t seem to be accurate in portraying people,” Zgola said. “We’re being fed lies.”

For Neichelle Guidry DIV ’10, Smith’s expression of his passion for theater was aligned with her own views of the genre as “intrinsic and spiritual.”

Smith will be conducting the Performing History workshop at the Yale School of Drama, on Monday, Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. Smith’s latest theater production, Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”, is currently running at The Classical Theatre of Harlem.

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